What’s happened in Tunisia this past week and a half almost reads like a political satire:
President Kais Saied “suspended the elected parliament, lifted parliamentary immunity, dismissed the government, appointed himself as attorney general, and threatened to punish anyone who violated the measures.”
The President has basically dissolved the entire government. All that’s left is for him to declare that the population — who largely struggle to make ends meet — eat cake.
What’s perhaps unique about Saied is that he’s not supportive of some of the secular measures that the Tunisian parliament has tended to support—like changing the Sharia-based inheritance law.
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But what’s disconcerting is his willingness to be chummy with people like Egypt’s el-Sisi and Egypt’s overwhelming support of Saied even now. That should be a red flag, especially considering the way Egypt now deals with many of its Muslims and has in the recent past as well. Will Saied perhaps protect certain basic Islamic principles but treat the devout like criminals?
The deeper one digs into Tunisian politics, the more the country’s entwinement with secularism, from the “Islamist” and actual secular side becomes apparent and of course, problematic.
The “Islamists” of Tunisia
The term “Islamist” is thrown around in the media and more high-brow publications so liberally that no one is really sure what it means. In terms of Tunisia, Ennahda is the “Islamist” party, and once again, based on the actions and platform of that party it’s hard to land solidly on a definition of “Islamist.”
Ennahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi is the party that calls for “democracy and progress” and is proud of the “modernist” constitution they developed as a result of the Arab Spring. Remember, they are “Muslim democrats, not Islamists,” according to Ghannouchi, who also said he wanted to separate Islam from politics in Tunisia, which he made clear when he rebranded the party back in 2016.
Consider this twisted logic expressed by Ghannouchi back in 2016, and still relevant to his party:
“This is good for politicians because they would no longer be accused of manipulating religion for political means and good for religion because it would not be held hostage to politics”
That’s actually exactly what being a slave to the secularists does—it allows Islam to be held hostage by their political system. Even now, Ennahda is crying for democracy.
We can start to see, then, the separation that exists between what many Western media outlets understand “Islamist” groups to be and what they actually often are, political parties that have the world “Islam” somehow attached to their name and typically present some kind of “diet Islam,” but really power is the goal, even if that means compromising on Islamic principles.
What’s the proof of that? Well for starters, the changing of the inheritance law from its Quranic basis to an equality-feminism alternative. Now Ghannouchi and his party are opposing the current president’s freezing of the parliament and dismissal of the prime minister. To what end? The rhetoric is far too unclear, far too steeped in the usual alphabet soup of “democracy…equality…freedom…” and other sweet nothings.
A History of Secularism
Tunisia’s secular slant, while perhaps even more extreme than many other Arab countries, is not unique to the present-day. Following independence from French rule in 1956, the first president post-independence, Habib Bourguiba (1959-1987), was very much a secular dictator.
Sounding like a French parliamentarian, Bourguiba was extremely vocal about his distaste for the hijab, which he called “that odious rag.” On another occasion, he literally removed women’s hijabs while in the street. (Proceed with caution—or better yet, not at all—when Ronald Reagan calls you “one of the great liberators of modern day Africa.”)
The tradition of secular dictatorship followed from there, with Ben Ali taking the reins of power from 1989 to 2011. Ben Ali prohibited wearing hijab in state institutions, which some sisters chose to defy.
This type of hostility toward Islam is the reality in many “Muslim” countries these days. The governments seem to want citizens to shut up, accept corruption, not be “too religious,” and just scrape by.
But Antony Blinken is concerned about Tunisia in part because he tells us it’s such a great bastion of democracy:
“Tunisia’s been a remarkable demonstration of democracy, and it’s really, I think, been a strong example not just for the region but for the world.”
He’s not so far off—except for the whole freezing parliament and firing everyone thing—and that’s kind of the problem. When the will of the people can overturn Allah’s word, we have a problem.
Don’t let the secular rhetoric fool you. Celebrating “equality” by ruling the Sharia irrelevant is not a great step for man, or woman. Ask any respectable physician who isn’t afraid of getting cancelled if men and women should be treated “equal.”
In 2017, then-president Essebsi (now deceased) decided to challenge the inheritance law (and the law prohibiting Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men).
These types of changes are also, in part, the legacy of Bourguiba, whose 1956 Code of Personal Status (مجلة الاحوال الشخصية) worked to secularize Tunisia. The law, for example, abolished polygamy.
So what’s next for Tunisia?
Well, right now the President is busy sacking everyone and raiding Al Jazeera’s offices. Perhaps Tunisia’s legacy of secular dictators is about to come back in full force, looking this time somewhat more like El-Sisi than Bourguiba, but we’ll have to wait to find out.
We can only hope that the Tunisian people will get some economic relief and will be able to practice Islam without the threat of secularism which had regular Muslims banned from wearing hijab in universities and many tortured for suspected ties to “Islamists,” which probably at times meant nothing more than they were doing things like praying regularly.
At the least, we can hope and pray that the political conversation shifts in the right direction, away from the secular fascism that has plagued the country since independence and toward a prosperous, Islamic Tunisia.
- 12:44; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0-D78jMEyA ↑
- Moore, Clement Henry. Tunisia Since Independence: The Dynamics of One-Party Government. (Berkley: University of California Press, 1965), p. 55. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Tunisia_Since_Independence/hZscjWU7yUkC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=rag, ↑